It happens. A few weeks into the semester you finish grading the first exam in a course, and check the class average only to find that performance is decidedly underwhelming. What happened? Was the exam too hard? Did it have confusing questions? Impossible, of course. You wrote the exam yourself and made sure that it assessed everything students should have gleaned over the past few weeks. The exam was a finely tuned instrument designed to separate the wheat from the chaff.
But, for whatever reason, the exam results were predominantly chaff.
Was it your teaching? Impossible, of course. You are a conscientious teacher who worked diligently on your lectures. You tracked down recent references, created examples, embedded discussion questions, made several rounds of revisions, and followed tips for creating proper PowerPoints. But the students still did poorly, and will surely blame you and exact revenge on your teaching evaluations. The only viable explanation for the students’ poor performance is that the students are to blame. It’s not you, it’s them! (Or so you think.)
Teachers want students to learn, and when students fail to meet that goal, someone must bear the responsibility. The kids aren’t all right – they’re the problem. At one time or another, it is easy to feel as though students are not holding up their end of the teacher-student "relationship."
This conclusion that students are not "all right" often takes the form of lamenting students’ lack of motivation, lack of interest, lack of preparation, excessive partying, excessive socializing, and a lack of enthusiasm for our teaching. Worse, some make broad claims that students in general "don't read," "can't write" and "can't think," especially compared to students of yesteryear. But are these novel complaints? A faculty report once concluded that 25 percent of students admitted to Harvard in 1897 did not have the writing skills necessary to succeed in college. This does not bode well for progress in higher education over the past 100+ years.
Unfortunately what this does suggest is that the phenomenon of blaming students is more ubiquitous and may not be limited to teachers who are exceptionally egocentric, narcissistic, burnt-out, curmudgeonly, or those who would rather not teach at all.
As professors who have the responsibility for helping our students learn, this seems like a counterproductive perspective. Teachers are all familiar with the notion that when students do well in our courses, they take the credit as the smart and capable students that they are. However, when students do poorly the teacher often bears the blame. Students have "earned" every A, but have been "given" every B, C, D, or F by their less than stellar teachers.
However, professors are not immune from adopting a similar self-serving bias. When a specific class, an entire course, or an entire semester of teaching evaluations go well, we simply re-affirm our teaching prowess. But when evaluations are less than complimentary, there must be another explanation. Most commonly we attribute poor teaching outcomes to the occupants of the desks in our classroom. Yet, if you asked students why some of their courses are less fulfilling, less educational, and less enjoyable, students would likely suggest that the instructor is to blame. Certainly both perspectives have a kernel of truth.
If students are not ideal scholars, there must be a good reason for how this came to be. A common explanation for students’ shortcomings involves generational differences. But it seems too easy to merely conclude that the students of today, "generation me," are qualitatively different than students of the past. We must remember that when we compare students past and present, we may be using an unfair comparison group.
We run the risk of using our own past experience as the default comparison group. This presents two problems. First, our recollection of our own college experience may suffer from retrospective biases where we recall things more favorably than they were. Did we really do all of our reading? Did we really avoid procrastinating? Did we truly devote ourselves to our coursework? Were we really attentive in class 100 percent of the time? Certainly, we are prone to some degree of rosy retrospection.
The second problem is that even if we have perfect and bias-free retrospection, it is likely that you were not a typical college student. In fact, it is much more likely that you went on to become a professor because you were not a typical student. Compared to the typical student, you probably earned better grades and placed a higher value on education. Compared to the average student at most colleges and universities, you may have graduated from a better high school, had more encouragement along the way, or had better role models who reinforced the importance of pursuing higher education. Perhaps, as a result, you emerged from high school with better critical thinking skills, better writing skills, better reading skills, and were a more skilled test taker. Even if you did not benefit from any of these advantages, your superior performance as an undergraduate was undoubtedly the result of you paying better attention in class, studying more, reading the assigned texts, and conscientiously completing assignments.
More to the point, it is likely that your own college classrooms were not teeming with aspiring academics who shared your enthusiasm and appreciation of the learning process. Chances are that some of your fellow students were supremely prepared, some were supremely underprepared, the rest were somewhere in between. The same is true in our classrooms today. Thus, we should be careful to avoid portraying our personal academic experiences and motivations as the benchmark for comparisons.
In reality, we are much more like our students than we care to acknowledge. Who among us can say they have read all of the recent journals in their field, have never submitted a less than perfect manuscript or grant proposal, have never procrastinated on a project, have never missed a deadline, have never been late to class, have never skipped a meeting, or have not paid astute attention while a speaker provided information? If you have any doubt about this last one, I urge you to look around the room during your next faculty meeting to see how many of your colleagues are otherwise occupied.
Students in our classes today do check their cell phones excessively. When we were students, most of us never would have dreamed of doing such a thing (mainly because there weren’t cell phones). But, if you had such a device as a student, I suspect that you may have found it difficult to avoid checking for text messages about that night’s social activities as well. Now that we do have these devices, how many of your colleagues (if not yourself) check their BlackBerrys or iPhones on a potentially excessive basis? Although there may be generation differences in the available technology, students and teachers of yesterday and today share the same desire to learn useful information, to be financially secure, to lead a happy life, and to be efficient, and to avoid wasting time engaging in seemingly meaningless activities. Ultimately, if we focus on the similarities rather than highlight the differences, we will be more effective in helping our students to learn.
Students as a whole are not going to change. It is unlikely that an entire generation, student body, or even your early morning class will see the light, rebel against their nature, and suddenly enter your classroom as the dedicated scholars you think they should be. Not only will your students show up in the same state as they did last semester, it may be unrealistic to expect otherwise. If someone had the courage to enact change in our students, which of the following would be the wiser course of action? A) Assume that you should simply keep doing what you have been for years as students will make the choice to change and will enter your class prepared, motivated, and enthusiastic. B) Ask yourself, what can you do to connect with your students in a way that allows you to achieve the goals that you have for them? The wisdom is in Choice B.
Given that we may be unable to effect wholesale, lasting changes in the inherent natures of our students, we as teachers can adapt and better meet our teaching goals. As they say, the first step is acknowledging that we contribute to the problem. By focusing on student deficiencies, you may inadvertently perpetuate the problem. Case in point, by developing a mindset that students have significant deficiencies, you may become more prone to developing a confirmatory bias that leads you to more easily identify and remember students’ deficiencies. Worse, negative expectations about students might lead you to act in a way (perhaps unknowingly) that elicits negative behaviors from students.
For example, if you became convinced that your class was unenthusiastic, you might devote less effort to your next lecture because quite frankly "why bother? They aren’t interested anyway." Thus, your next lecture is subsequently less engaging, and the students are, as you predicted, unenthusiastic. By identifying and resisting this self-defeating pattern, you can take steps to avoid it. After all, you are the person with the most influence on the classroom and have the most ability to produce the desired change.
We'd like you to think back to the question posed above. When you were an undergraduate, were you really attentive in class 100 percent of the time? Always engaged? Or were you only attentive and engaged in the better classes, with the better teachers who projected positivity and respect for their students? If so, are you teaching one of the better classes? Are you one of the better teachers? If you have room for improvement, as all average, good, and great teachers do, keep in mind that it is impossible to be a master teacher without a fundamental respect and appreciation of your students. Only by avoiding the obstacle of blaming students, can you proceed to instill in your students a sense of curiosity, skepticism, and an interest in pursuing new ways of thinking about the world.
Gary W. Lewandowski Jr. is associate professor of psychology at Monmouth University. David B. Strohmetz is associate professor of psychology and associate vice president for academic and institutional assessment at Monmouth University.